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Iraq: Arab States Stress Unity On Crisis But Pursue Divergent Policies

  • Charles Recknagel

Arab leaders have united to say they oppose an attack on Iraq as a threat to Arab national security. The statement, made at a summit meeting in Egypt on 1 March, sounds as if all the Arab states have finally found a common position on the Iraq crisis. But in Mideast politics, what leaders say publicly and do privately may be quite different, and even as they condemn any attack, many states are actively aiding the U.S. troop buildup. RFE/RL looks at where the Arab world now stands on the Iraq crisis.

Prague, 3 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Arab leaders are responding to domestic antiwar feeling by increasingly speaking out in public against any attack on Iraq, even though many states are actively supporting U.S. war preparations.

The leaders of the 22 Arab governments that compose the Arab League issued a joint communique on 1 March declaring the Arab world as strongly against war on Iraq and against foreign interference in Arab affairs. The communique also called upon Iraq to comply with United Nations disarmament resolutions.

The statement, issued during an Arab summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm Al-Shaykh, comes after weeks of failed attempts among Arab leaders to form a single position over the Iraq crisis. A meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo earlier last month erupted into bitter accusations after Persian Gulf states accused Lebanon and Syria of issuing a statement in their name calling on all Arab states to "refuse any assistance" to U.S. forces deploying to the region.

To overcome those divisions, the wording of this weekend's statement stops short of demanding that Arab states deny the United States use of their facilities. But by carefully preserving the ability of each government to form its own policy toward the U.S. troop buildup, the statement also does nothing to slow Washington's deployment against Baghdad.

Daniel Neep, a regional expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the statement is best viewed as a symbolic gesture of unity, not as a new and substantive common stand. "The Arab states, although inclined to make a common stand on issues pertaining to the region, actually have very different individual policies, and any joint communique they will issue represents the lowest common denominator that they can possibly all subscribe to, yet at the same time retain an individuality and freedom of movement in order to make their own priorities real. So I think that really doesn't represent any newfound unity. It is more of the same that we have seen before," Neep said.

Neep said that the joint statement is largely an effort by the Arab governments to counter mounting domestic criticism that they are doing nothing to avoid a war against Iraq.

In a measure of how seriously Arab governments regard that criticism, Cairo permitted a first mass rally by some 200,000 antiwar demonstrators in the capital's main stadium on 28 February. Until now, most Arab governments have discouraged large protests, fearing that any unrest could turn against them as abetting an attack on a brother Muslim country. Any war against Iraq is widely regarded by popular Arab opinion as advancing U.S. and Israeli interests at the expense of the Iraqi people.

Neep put the predicament Arab governments face this way: "Obviously, many Arab states are faced with the predicament that there is a split between public opinion, which is very antiwar, and the positions of the governments, which is, for underlying reasons of strategy for the most part, much more pro-Western-oriented. The public considers their own government to be puppets of the U.S., to a great extent, so it's up to the governments at the moment to first of all try to assert some independence from the U.S. and also to be seen to be playing a real role in international politics."

The concern over popular opinion has caused many of the unelected Arab governments to follow a well-established pattern in Mideast politics of publicly saying one thing during a crisis while privately doing another.

As one example, Saudi Arabia has frequently stated that it will provide no support to a U.S.-led war against Baghdad outside of a United Nations framework. But that concession to Islamist feeling, which runs particularly high in the kingdom, has been contradicted by repeated leaks to the Western press that Riyadh will allow Washington use of a key air base for military operations.

Reuters last week cited U.S. officials as saying privately that Saudi Arabia will allow use of its sophisticated U.S.-built Prince Sultan air base, but Saudi officials immediately denied the report. Pressed by reporters, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said only that "we have had very productive meetings regarding military cooperation with Saudi Arabia in the event of military action against Iraq."

As Arab governments try to balance their domestic and foreign-policy positions on Iraq, the states that are most closely allied with Washington usually have worked the hardest to appear to be trying to solve the crisis peacefully.

The past months have seen several states, notably Saudi Arabia, call for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to go into voluntary exile to avoid a conflict. The initiative has been backed by other Persian Gulf states and supported by the United States, even though it has been entirely ruled out by the Iraqi government.

During the summit at Sharm Al-Shaykh, the United Arab Emirates proposed that the Arab League officially call on Hussein to step down. The idea was immediately endorsed by Kuwait, which hosts some 200,000 U.S. and British troops preparing to invade Iraq, and Bahrain, which is headquarters to the U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf region.

But other states angrily rejected the proposal as an effort to interfere in Iraq's domestic affairs. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa told reporters the summit did not discuss the Persian Gulf states' initiative. "We are not concerned with the change of regimes. This is not our job," Musa said.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, speaking immediately after the meeting, told reporters in Sharm Al-Shaykh that Arab states should be demanding that U.S. President George W. Bush step down instead. "He [Bush] should step down, because he is a reckless dictator, a reckless despot who does not respond to the voices and the opinions of millions of people. He is driving the whole world and the whole of his country to danger," Sabri said.

Such deep differences over whether the Arab League should back regime change in one of its member states may simply underline the great difficulties that the Arab states have in speaking with one voice on foreign-policy questions. And that may mean that the real message from the Arab states on 1 March is not so much that they are succeeding in finding unity but that -- much like their counterparts in the European Union -- they keep trying, even if with very limited success.

Arab heads of state are due to meet again on 5 March in Qatar as part of the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The 56-country OIC brings together governments from across the Islamic world and is due to focus on the Iraq crisis among other topics.

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